What it's about:
Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a middle-aged author, stuck in a rut of mundanity and boredom, comes across the first ray of light in his miserable life. Miles from his wife and son in a hotel in a strange city, he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), an awkward, self-loathing young woman who nonetheless makes him feel more alive than he has in years.
What we thought:
Anomalisa, as it is later explained in the film, refers to this young woman, Lisa, being an anomaly in the drudgery of our protagonist's life but, frankly, from top to bottom, Anomalisa is an anomaly of a film. It's one of the rare adult animated films outside of anime to get a major release, for a start, but, more importantly, every minute of the film is either horribly uncomfortable, ugly, unnerving, hateful or, more often than not, a mixture of all of the above but, as near as I can tell, that's precisely the point.
From the brilliant but horribly unsettling stop-motion animation that dives head first into the uncanny valley (that awful place on the artificial/real continuum where the artificial is just real enough to be utterly repulsive to most human beings: see Beowulf, Polar Express) to the way that everyone but Lisa and Michael are creepily voiced only by Tom Noonan, be they female or male, the film had me feeling almost physically revolted and uneasy right from its opening moments. And, between Michael Stone being one of the most awkward, least likable screen characters to come along in a long time and his horribly uncomfortable rendezvous with the bundle of awkwardness known as Lisa, that culminates in a shockingly graphic sex scene between what is – let us not forget – two anatomically-correct puppets (yes, South Africa's Film and Publication Board rated the film 13, yes the FPB are clearly either insane or deeply stupid), Anomalisa easily ranks as one of the most viscerally upsetting films I have ever, ever seen.
It would be very easy to give this horrible film a 1-star rating and be on my way, but what am I to do when that very horribleness is at least kind of the point? And besides, while it's one thing to be repulsed by a film that is supposed to be, say, funny (hello, Adam Sandler), it's quite another to be repulsed by something where repulsion is a large part of the goal.
Charlie Kaufman is a risky, confrontational film maker who has written the screenplay for brilliantly mad masterpieces like Being John Malkovitch and the sublimely beautiful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but, when left to his own devices and without a director to reel him in somewhat, we get something like the tiresomely self-indulgent twaddle of Synechdoche, New York. For Anomalisa, Kaufman may be working with Duke Johnson as co-director but, unlike with his earlier movies, his voice easily overtakes the voice of his collaborator.
The thing is, though, that while I thought Synechdoche, New York failed to achieve its lofty goals, the more humble (and far, far shorter) Anomalisa actually does. This is the story of an unpleasant man, living an unpleasant life, reaching an unpleasant (non) epiphany about how he relates to other people that is clearly a reflection of how a wildly imaginative artist like Kaufman sees the lives of more mundane people. And yet, the fact that Michael Stone is also a highly intelligent, reasonably wealthy guy with at least some creative impulses (he may write about management strategies but at least he actually writes about them) gives the sense that the scorn that Kaufman has for this character might just be reflexive as well.
It's exactly that sort of nuance that makes the film at least interesting and between that and the fact that, on a technical level, it is brilliantly put together and that there is something to be said for a work of art that can elicit any sort of visceral reaction in its audience, it's hard not to give Anomalisa at least something of a well-earned thumbs up. But, and I cannot stress this enough, it is a film that is exclusively for adventurous film-goers, and preferably those with a misanthropic view of the world.
Otherwise, I suggest sticking to Lost in Translation for a more enjoyable and much more positive take on similar themes and Team America: World Police for puppet sex that is funny rather than horrifying.
Or, you know, go watch Room again instead.
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